Eleven million skiers and snowboarders can't be wrong. That's how many slid down Colorado's slopes during the long, snowy 1996-97 season. They add up to roughly one-fifth of all ski resort visitors in the entire United States. They came from down the road and around the world because Colorado has the most compelling concentration of great mountains, fabulous snow, and entertaining resort towns anywhere.
This year, Colorado skiing gets even better, to the tune of $150 million. ThatÂ's what Colorado ski resorts have invested in new lifts, new terrain, greater snowmaking, and more facilities at the base and high on the mountain. Here's the overview:
This year's biggest investment Â— $66 million worth Â— was made at Copper Mountain, which is less than two hours from Denver and is popular both with destination skiers and riders and with day visitors from nearby. The base area will be under major reconstruction throughout the ski season, but Colorado's first six-passenger high-speed chairlift is rolling. Named the Super Bee, this replacement for the old B-1 and B-2 doubles rockets 2,300 feet from the base in just 10 minutes. When there's no lift line, an aggressive skier could conceivably rack up 66,000 vertical feet in a day. Considering that a good day's heli-skiing is 10,000, we're talking major verts.
Other developments pale, including the high-speed Excelerator to replace the old E-lift from mid-mountain. However, if the snowfall falters, the $7 million Copper invested in snowmaking improvements will be much appreciated. Millions more have gone into a new 40,000-square-foot day lodge, a 108-unit condo development and increased intra-resort shuttles between outlying free parking lots and the lifts. This year's $66 million is the first of a projected $400 million investment over the next few years. Where's the money coming from? Copper is now owned by Intrawest, the Vancouver-based corporation that put Whistler and other resorts on the map.
Vail Resorts, Inc.
One of the reasons that so much is being pumped into Copper is that it is bracketed on both sides by resorts operated by Vail Resorts, Inc., which buys lifts, snowcats, and snow-guns the way Imelda Marcos bought shoes. In fact, VRI pumped $130 million into Vail and Beaver Creek alone during the last two seasons (see below for details). Skiers and riders benefit from lift pass interchangeability. Any Vail/Beaver Creek lift ticket is valid at Breckenridge and Keystone too Â— and also at Arapahoe Basin, independently owned but a partner in some lift ticket deals. A set portion of multi-day Keystone/Breck tickets may be used at Vail or Beaver Creek.
Vail is hosting the 1999 World Alpine Championships (February - 14), which is like the Olympics just for ski racers with opening and closing ceremonies and two weeks of the best competitors on the circuit this year. Although some of the events take place at nearby Beaver Creek, Vail Mountain is the engine that drives the championships, and VRI is sinking $13.6 million into it, both for the competition and in diversions for regular, non-racing guests. The courses are ready for the racers, but an enhanced, improved and expanded on-mountain amusement center called Adventure Ridge has gotten a lot of attention. Thirty percent more grooming, nearly a million bucks worth of restaurant upgrades, a new mid-mountain kids' zone called Chaos Canyon and initial work on a controversial expansion area known as Category III round out the picture.
Beaver Creek, Colorado
More than $9 million is going into the elegant resort 10 miles west of Vail called Beaver Creek. Recent years have seen major lift upgrades and additions, a new downhill run for the '99 Worlds, a moving walkway leading to the lifts, the integration and interconnection of Beaver Creek with a small, formerly independent resort called Arrowhead, and the stunning new Vilar Center for the Arts, plus a new skating rink and retail center. We can't figure out how a nearly 5,000-square-foot expansion of the children's center, a new electronic guest information system, snowmaking and grooming improvements, and an expansion of the year-old indoor/outdoor patio barbecue restaurant called Red Tail Camp can equal $9 million. Maybe include the interest on construction loans for the $68 million investments over the past two years.
VRI also owns the ski facilities at Breckenridge. Last year, they spent $18 million and this year another $14 million. Following aggressive lift, trail, and snowmaking improvements, this year's money is going into a new $5.5 million restaurant called TenMile Station between Peak 9 and Peak 10, a new trail, five new winchcats to tame Breck's steeps (take that, bump skiers!), and a vast expansion of its snowboarding terrain parks and halfpipes.
An investment of $17 million last year and a little more than that this year have remade Keystone, one of the closest major resorts to Denver. This year, a new high-speed quad replaces the old Santiago triple chairlift, a mountaintop recreation called Adventure Point and similar to Vail's Adventure Ridge has been added, and children's facilities have been improved with two new Magic Carpet lifts and a kiddie theme area.
This popular close-to-Denver area, like Copper Mountain, is remaking its base. Te Winter Park base is undergoing a major redevelopment as a resort village that will take until next year to complete. Best to get up on the mountain and explore the 252 acres of additional steep and deep terrain on Vasquez Cirque. Winter Park has recently added lifts and made other on-mountain improvements. In terms of lifts, terrain, and on-hill amenities, Winter Park is the peer of the resorts above and Steamboat below, but it is proud of being an independent ski area owned by the City and County of Denver and not part of a major conglomerate.
Maine-based American Skiing Co., which owns Steamboat, is pumping $8 million into this northern Colorado giant. New is the Pony Express high-speed quad to serve 200 acres on Pioneer Ridge, including 12 new trails. Although Steamboat is the self-styled capital of "champagne powder," top-to-bottom snowmaking now covers Buddy's Run, Storm Peak Face, and Rainbow, a trio of popular trails.
Of the four ski areas operated by the mighty Aspen Skiing Co., Aspen Highlands is undergoing the biggest changes. Like Copper Mountain and Winter Park (above), the simple base area is being redeveloped into a base village over two years. The classic A-frame base lodge is gone, so you'll have to ignore the construction and enjoy several years worth of new lifts, new grooming, and terrain improvements. New this year is the Thunderbowl triple chair, replacing both the old Thunderbowl double and the Golden Horn T-bar. At nearby Aspen Mountain and Buttermilk, the SkiCo has improved snowmaking and improved guest services in several ways.
Last year, the Aspen Skiing Co. installed a surface lift at the Cirque, eliminating the lung-busting hike to 12,510 feet. This year, the steep Cirque at Snowmass will be served by a wind-powered "surface chair," a first in technology and environmental correctness. A new handle tow, two additional halfpipes, and a 3,000-vertical- foot trail with terrain features for snowboarders and an additional 335 acres on Burnt Mountain have been added.
Loveland is the ski area that arcs across the east side of the Eisenhower Tunnel that many skiers drive past-and under-as they speed westward along I-70. Stop sometime. This year, Loveland has installed the world's highest four-passenger chairlift (Snowmass' lift rises a tad higher, but it's not a quad) and 400 acres of open-slope terrain on The Ridge. Loveland has one of Colorado's longest ski seasons, ost snowfall, and most modest lift ticket prices.
Located just 21 miles from Boulder and accessible by public bus, Eldora is a local area that elsewhere in the country would be a worthy mid-size destination resort. A new quad chair replaces the venerable double on the backside of the mountain. New grooming for Alpine and Nordic trails as well as the halfpipe enhances snow quality.
After a six-year hiatus, Berthoud Pass squeaked back to life partway through last season with a totally renovated day lodge and one lift. This area, which offers lift-served backcountry skiing and riding, has restarted the Divide Lift on the west side of the area, accessing 1,000 additional acres of mostly advanced and expert terrain. At Berthoud, you ride the lifts, ski the drainages, and end up on the highway where a shuttle ferries you back to the lifts.
Backcountry snowcat skiing and snowboarding comes to Purgatory, Colorado's southernmost ski area. Full-day guided trips are available for strong, advanced skiers and riders six days a week. Reservations are required.
Written by Claire Walter. Produced by GORP.com, a partner of CBS.com.